Introduction by Jack Anders
Anyone who knows Didi knows that she is more sociable and more sane than most poets and the reasons why are revealed in this book. Many of the poems craft themselves outward from a central golden glow which is like our ideal dream of a familial kitchen with the clean sounds of a wooden roller over flour or tap water running in the sink, the secular holiness of children or good friends at a dinner table. The form of the poems often uses repetitive phrases or lists that have a dry feeling almost like a scaffolding set up to protect the warm glow of family from the surrounding world. There is both an anxiety and a hypersensitivity to place that comes from having another country or another language as well as this one. That mild soft glow of the domesticity, often framed as a memory, however, is transportable from place to place. So each one of her poems is like a homecoming or home-bringing.
The poems are grouped into three sections (like the rooms of a house), “When I Said Goodbye,” “Little Havana,” and “The Renaissance.” We can see how the poems are very sensual right from the first few, with an emphasis on taste and smell phenomena in particular which is unusual given how most poetry is dominated by the visual. (Consider how there was a whole school of the early 20th century modernist poets known as the “Imagists”). In fact you notice how in the first poem in the first section, which appears to document a relationship which has ended, we do not see the man’s face, but we get an immediate sense of how he smells. Notice how the first poem is firmly in a home setting, the second has cooking connoting a kitchen, and the third fairly reeks of the bedroom (and maybe a couple other rooms, before they were done). So the poems have a sensory focus that is unusually wide by going beyond simple sight and image, and an intentionally limited landscape which is the domestic, the home. This brings thoughts of the painter Pierre Bonnard who combined an unusually wide palette of impressionistic color phenomena with a deliberately limited focus on the home as landscape. Robert Creeley, as well, and Jane Hirschfield, might be considered poets with a keenness for domestic space, although each is less interwoven into family relationships and more solitary than Didi in her poems.
The third poem (“Night before the Divorce”) establishes how by giving the reader a sense of the veracity of the domestic, an additional frankness of intimacy is allowable, since, after all, home is intimate. To be invited into home is to be invited into discussions more personal than those that take place, say, at the office or the bank. The one who is invited in, after all, is not forced into the home — he has to accept the invitation, it is his choice to enter. By entering, he forms a compact at a base level of trust: he is allowed into a home which is after all vulnerable, not locked or guarded. In that setting, an unlocked, unguarded thought is allowable, or better, natural. This inherent setting, built up by the preceding poems, I think is what takes the jagged edge off of “Night before the Divorce” and gives it a unique feeling, more multilayered than what you might initially expect from its baleful subject matter. The effect of this particular poem may be compared to Sharon Olds, in its emotional and sexual frankness, but the poem is unlike Olds in that it avoids metaphor and instead uses the listing or reiterating mechanism (for example, the series of lines beginning “No that”) which feels like a way of structuring or controlling potential anxiety. Compare that to the series of lines starting with “I get my” in the last stanza of the poem titled, “Little Deaths.”
The sense of shared intimacy is a sense of openness, i.e., of sociality, and relates back to the friendly overall tone of these poems, each of which defines the reader more as a dinner guest or a houseguest, as somebody to be welcomed, as opposed to someone to be instructed, or, worse, to be manipulated (as is too often the case with poetry books). The poems thus offer a persona which is an alternative to the poet as antisocial loner.
Again we see the sensory focus of the poet in the work in the next section. For example in this passage from the poem, “When My Guitar Was Hocked”:
When my guitar was hocked,
I was twirling my hair, blowing my nose,
dipping the Ruffles have Ridges into Lipton Onion Dip.
I was drinking a Pepsi.
I was playing Fur Elise on the Piano.
I was turning fifteen.
The senses are touch, taste, sound, and that ineffable sense of time. Of course the visual imagery is always there as well (since it is so frontloaded or pervasive in our language — names are sight-images), but the writer is naturally multi-sensual. Again, there is a conspicuous lack of metaphor. As is evident in the poetry of Cavafy, and as explained in Auden’s essay on Cavafy, metaphor is expendable, nothing more than a technique like any other, to be used or not used depending on one’s natural capacities. Probing a little deeper, it may be that Didi’s poems avoid metaphor because there is a certain crystallizing peculiarity to the objects as-themselves, which lessens the typical poetic pressure to compare them to others (which is what metaphor does). The thing-names in the passage above — “Ruffles have Ridges,” “Lipton, “Pepsi,” even “Fur Elise,” have a certain considered or savored quality to them, which is, as it were, an echo, for the English speaking reader, of what the initial approach to such western pop cultural name artifacts might be like for the foreign-born speaker — a mirror to the way that the Spanish words in her poems sound to the sadly English- unilingual reader like me. So when she uses words like espumita or abuela I hear them perhaps as she especially at a younger age might have heard words such as Ruffles or Lipton — as weird and tangy alien tokens, frontloaded with their sound, their specific rolling-of-the-tongue music, since they have an opacity of meaning. I.e., I focus more on the sound of espumita precisely because I don’t really know what the word means, so the word can’t just dissolve into its meaning. Or to put it more pretentiously, the signifier aspect of the word precesses the signified aspect. Since we never even get to meaning, we can’t get dissatisfied with the too-well- known meaning, so we do not reach the stage of desiring other meanings, even other words for other meanings — the stage of metaphor. We are still, as it were, inside the word, in its intimate immanence, what one might call, its home life.
Again in the “Mira, Garcia Lorca” poem, we see this warm glow that is related to the home. I am reminded of the concept of “open commensality” which is used by historical Jesus scholars who seek to demystify established western religion and get it back down into something believable. Open commensality means eating with anyone, inviting the stranger into one’s home for supper, refusing to use rules of social exclusion at the table. According to scholars such as John Dominic Crossan, from what we can tell, the historical Jesus would eat with anyone; he observed none of the social conventions that divided rich from poor, upper from lower class. There is a similar sense of openness in passages such as:
Mira, Federico, I
have some eggnog my dead grandmother
made 10 years ago with 80 percent proof Cuban rum.
I have it chilling in the back of the refrigerator
for special occasions like today.
The act of taking a drink together poetically trespasses three generations and distances of death. That’s the warmth of the hearth, the golden home- light. It is no surprise that a poem with a more negative slant, such as “A Good Day for Suicide,” inverts the kitchen at home into the parody or capitalistic travesty which is the kitchen at Barnes & Noble, where the attempt to re-create an “authentic” Parisian or Greenwich Village coffeehouse earthiness devolves into something generic, commodified and Disneyfied:
I ordered café mocha. The attendant asked if I wanted it with ice. I said no. He then asked me again. I said what? What size he wanted to know. I had understood if I wanted it with ice and not what size. What size is such a personal question.
The “personal question” does not work in this setting since it is a mere travesty of a happy sharing or service. The poor attendant cannot be a friend, he must be an “attendant,” like a “server” at a restaurant, a piece of minimum wage machinery. In an authentically warm environment, we would not only be able to talk about “what size,” but we’d be able to talk about all the other things that Didi talks about in her book, since with this book she has created not only a home for her poetry, but for the reader.
As I said, a lot of poets are antisocial miserable little hermits. Didi by contrast is friendly and once she invites you into her house, poetically speaking, she is very loyal. She is not afraid of the public, social, or exposed aspects of being a poet in the world. She is also well-rounded in the sense that she works as much on reading, publishing other folks’ work, helping others, as she does on her own particular work represented by this book. Even when it comes to creating art she will not simply do poetry, but she also paints, clearly cooking is an art form to her, and she probably has two or three other arts I don’t know about. My wife has a beautiful painting of hers. A lot of the writers I know are better off for knowing her. She has worked at how to use things like the internet and podcasts and so forth for poetry about as hard as anyone I know. I remember what a shock it was to me when I finally (being a miserable little hermit) visited her house and realized she creates the whole MiPO multimedia empire there on one little PC in a cramped room. She also holds down a job, and is about as non- insane as a poet can be (given that all poets are a little bonkers). What I am saying is that you can’t really know her poems unless you know her and she is not on the side of those who believe poems are supposed to exist in some cryogenic sealed-off vat of capital L Literature, rather, they are part and parcel of the rest of life. By that I mean, if you like her poems, what you really need to do is look her up on the internet, and call her or send her an email, and say hello, because she is someone not only worth talking to and knowing, but someone actually capable of dealing with other people (unlike most poets I know). I have tried to focus on her work in a scholarly way in this essay, but I wanted to end it with a tip of the hat to her as a person. This mojito’s for you, kid.
When I Said Goodbye by Didi Menendez (2008)
- Paperback: 68 pages
- Publisher: BlazeVOX Books (March 3, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1934289868
- ISBN-13: 978-1934289860
- Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 0.2 x 9.2 inches